Cascading changes likely for cruise travelers

cruise travelersChanges are coming for cruise travelers even though exactly what happened to force Costa Concordia to ground off the coast of Italy has yet to be defined by forensic evidence. Playing out as everything from rumors to accusations and first-hand reports from passengers actually on the ship, media outlets have been working overtime reporting the story. Some accounts seem reasonable, some far-fetched and some totally bizarre. But churning to the top and coming more in focus all the time are changes likely to be seen in the very near future that will affect every cruise traveler.

Thinking of what we know and have seen about the Costa Concordia event, there are some facts that we don’t need an official report to verify. We see a once-mighty cruise ship on its side with our own eyes and ask “How could this have happened?” That’s the big question that concerns cruise industry experts and will force changes in the operation of cruise ships in the very near future.

“This tragedy has called into question our company’s safety and emergency response procedures and practices,” Micky Arison, chairman and CEO of Carnival Corporation said last week, calling for an audit of safety procedures.

Technically, by the numbers, cruise vacations are safe. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 16 million passengers sailed in 2011 and 2012 is projected to exceed that by at least another million. This type of accident is rare. But so was the sinking of the RMS Titanic, 100 years ago in April. That disastrous event served as a wake up call to an overly confident cruise industry at the time much like Concordia has shaken even the hyper-safe cruise industry of today.

“While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews, this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn’t happen again,” said Arison.

To insure future safety at a higher, more effective level, Arison ordered a complete review of safety procedures fleet-wide across all the various cruise line brands that fall under the Carnival Corporation umbrella.

On the safety topic, everyone in the cruise industry seems to agree.

“Any loss of life at sea is tragic, but the Costa Concordia disaster is even more traumatic since it was entirely preventable,” said Captain Bill Doherty, director of maritime affairs for Nexus, a provider of private maritime safety and security solutions.

“Safety is a journey rather than a destination,” said Royal Caribbean President and CEO Adam Goldstein echoing the position of many in the cruise industry. Goldstein notes the need to look for lessons in every minor incident or accident. Looking to the future, Goldstein cautions against complacency. “This is a never ending cycle. As our Chairman Richard Fain says, there is no such thing as perfect safety but there is such a thing as perfect dedication to safety. We strive to be true to that concept.”

A complete review of safety procedures will naturally come in contact with security issues that can create potential safety problems. Right after 9-11, the travel industry was on it’s highest level of security ever. Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and airports in addition to governmental agencies put into place new protocols to help prevent a disaster such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center from happening ever again.

In the process, the cruise industry inquiry will probably run into other areas of safety and security that will force cascading change on areas other than lifeboats, safety drills and the like.

Changes to look for:

  • Safety Drill before the ship leaves the dock on every sailing- This is just a no-brainer after the Costa Concordia event where hundreds who had embarked the vessel the day of the grounding had received little if any safety instruction.
  • The modification or end of Navigational Bridge and behind the scenes tours- They went away right after 9-11 but have crept back in from one cruise line to another as a revenue source that offers an opportunity to cause harm that could affect a ship full of passengers.
  • Increased security presence on ships- Although rare, instances of binge drinking and other associated “I’m at sea so its OK” behavior will come under greater control with an increased security presence on ships industry-wide.
  • Tighter rules on teens- Teen rape, underage drinking and other associated problems with teen travelers are caused by an environment that inadvertently allows these things to happen. While cruise lines have a zero-tolerance for crime and drugs on ships, the very nature of a cruise ship environment allows them to happen. This will be a tough one to address but one that is overdue for action.
  • Passports required- The issue has been kept on hold for years as the travel industry moans that requiring passports for US citizens would prevent many from traveling. One step toward better security and resulting safety would be the increased level of security brought by requiring passports of all passengers embarking any ship, any time.
  • Background checks- Critics of the cruise industry point to a lack of diligence that allows sex and drug offenders and child molesters, required to register on land, to easily board cruise ships. Their presence creates an environment of easy prey as underage passengers are allowed to roam free. Once seen as the call of overly-critical cruise foes, the industry will give the topic serious consideration.
  • Psychological profiles of command officers- Especially if evidence confirms that the captain of Costa Concordia was on a joy ride to show off the ship to the folks on shore, this will be huge. “Captains ultimately answer to no one — on board,” Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic told MSNBC. The reasons are steeped in seafaring history, she said. “But I think that’s something that will change.” More checks and balances are needed, and Brown anticipate changes in the future as a result of the Concordia grounding. “A lot of standardization is probably coming out of this,” she said.

Experts agree, this can’t happen again, but questions are raised.

Done right, this increased focus on safety and security plus all the areas of cruise ship operations that are affected by both will be costly. Expect cruise prices to rise as a result. Still, wouldn’t it be better to pay $50 more for a cruise and greatly reduce the odds of these things happening ever again?

It was not all that long ago that safety concerns over trouble spots like Egypt, Mexico, Japan and others around the globe were driving travelers toward cruise vacations. Does this Costa Concordia tragedy change that attraction?

These are questions that will be answered over time as the cruise industry, still reeling from this latest event, recovers, regroups and moves on.

Flickr photo by Cyr0z